“His skillful and deep commentaries offer a new paradigm of interpretation. He approaches the mystical songs of great masters as poetic expressions of inner transformation rather than philosophical presentations of noble truths…” - Sylvia Wetzel
“The book is a magnet. It pulls me toward the tracklessness in everyone, makes me want to sit with all the great wisdom treasures from and to which these words flow.” - Anne Klein
“Ken illuminates Jigmé’s vision by sharing his own personal journey. Who would ever guess that space would be so rich, and doing nothing so dynamic!” - Shinzen Young
“McLeod’s careful, wise scholarship and craftsmanship, and his determined, almost heroic, point of view on practice, make this book a thrilling read.” - Norman Fischer
. . .The subject matter of this poem is a particular kind of awareness, an aware-ness that cannot be described. It can only be experienced. The practice regi-men associated with it is called dzogchen or great completion.
In every contemplative tradition that I know, mention is made of a point where what is experienced cannot be put into words. The conceptual mind has reached its limits. The Cloud of Unknowing is the title of a book by a four-teenth-century mystic, in which the reader is counseled to seek God through contemplation that is motivated by love and stripped of all thought. In Mahay-ana Buddhism, the perfection of wisdom is described as inexpressible, inde-scribable and inconceivable. In this poem, too, Jigmé Lingpa states in the first verse that awareness cannot be described.
This book is about an awareness that goes beyond the conceptual mind. As such, it speaks to practitioners of many contemplative traditions, from Zen to Sufism, from Lao Tzu to Meister Eckhart. If you think this awareness will make you a better person or improve your life, then I suggest you close this book now and throw it away. Neither this poem nor this awareness has much to do with the utilitarian mentality that seems to pervade modern life, a mentality that, as David Graeber argues in Debt: The First 5000 Years, sees every human interaction as nothing more than a transaction, every kind act as a loan and every moral transgression as a debt to be repaid.
Whether this awareness is described as an awakening or as a deep peace, it opens up a profound freedom. It changes our relationship with what we experience, and it changes our relationship with life. Yet, if we look past the elaborate metaphors, the enigmatic stories and the naïve fables, we see from the lives of teachers and masters through the ages that this knowing does not necessarily make life easier. In more than a few cases, it made life con-siderably harder. Buddha Shakyamuni died largely abandoned by his follow-ers. Milarepa, the great Tibetan mountain hermit renowned for his teaching songs, was assassinated by an envious scholar. Taranatha, one of the greatest scholar-masters of the Tibetan traditions, was implicated in a political plot, his monasteries confiscated and his writings proscribed for centuries. Neverthe-less, few who seek this knowing have any regrets about their decision to pur-sue it. The knowing is meaningful, intensely meaningful, to them on its own. . .
What is it like when you turn your back on the natural path?
Because you are enthralled by mistaken beliefs,
Your puritanical practice is lopsided,
Based as it is on some flawed metaphysical theory—
How reactive you are, you irrational extremists!
From the dzogchen point of view, all we have to do is sit, rest and do nothing, and let our confusion sort itself out, until the way we experience life becomes clear, empty and free. This way of practice sounds simple, but it is not easy, if only because the conditioning that prevents us from knowing this clarity and freedom is so very powerful. To be able to rest in whatever arises in experience, we need three qualities: the willingness to do so, the skill or know-how to meet what arises and the capacity to be present in what we experience without becoming lost in it.
Ajahn Chah says, “If you want to practice meditation, put a chair in the center of a room. Sit in the chair and see who comes to visit.” Most of us do not have sufficient willingness, skill or capacity to let the visitors come and go on their own, like thieves in an empty house. Instead, we hold dearly to our ideas about what should or should not be happening and how things should or should not be. We often reduce everything to a single principle, a single perspective, in order to have an anchor, a reference point around which to organize everything we encounter in life. Here are some examples: “There is in me an entity (a soul) that does not change throughout time.” “I think, therefore I am.” “I am one with the universe.” “I exist independently of what I experience.” “I am nothing more than the electrochemical processes in my brain and body.” “I am an instrument of God’s will.” “I am an illusion.” “I am what I experience.” “I am the author of my life.” “I can attract whatever I need by an act of will.” None of these principles is ultimately true, of course, but all of them (and many others) have been the fundamental tenet of at least one system of thought or religion.
Each of these metaphysical views gives us something to believe in. The belief provides us with a way to define what we are and, just as importantly, what we are not. Anything that contradicts our belief or even calls it into question we regard as wrong or not true. Conversely, we regard as right or true anything that reinforces or corroborates what we believe. Over time we become increasingly rigid and reactive, often resorting to elaborate reasoning and irrational arguments to justify and defend our core belief. We do not notice that we have become more and more reactive and that everything we say and do is about defending our views or countering potential threats to them. Rarely are we aware of how irrational or extreme we have become.
In this section of this poem, Jigmé Lingpa does not give any instruction or guidance about how to remedy these problems. His approach is to rest in open awareness and let those beliefs, even the core beliefs, resolve themselves. For me, that approach was not possible, at least not right away.
First, I had to learn to recognize my lopsided, extreme or dead-end thinking. I noticed that when I used such words as never, always, must or have to, I could be pretty sure that a pattern had taken over the microphone. I have also learned that when I am being rigid and inflexible, I am usually in the grip of an emotional reaction. The rigidity is a compensatory reaction to an uncer-tainty I am not able or willing to experience. . .
While mind itself doesn’t take up the good or give up the bad,
A meticulous practice of purity acts as an added pollutant.
With the forms of dualistic fixation you distort what is not two.
You seek a sublime state where there is nothing to be attained.
How elegant you are, you followers of ritual philosophy!
Time and again, when my teacher was teaching about mind itself, he would borrow someone’s glasses. He would place one of the lenses on a piece of white cloth, then on a piece of black cloth and then on a piece of cloth with a pattern. He was pointing out that mind itself, this transparent open knowing, is not affected by what arises in experience—pain or pleasure, good or bad, pure or impure, one or many.
In order to experience that knowing, we need a level of attention that has two qualities. First, we are not caught up in the coming and going of thoughts and emotions. Second, we can experience thoughts and emotions as clouds forming and dissolving in the space of mind. This level of attention is not the same as the experience of being the watcher in which we observe the coming and going of thoughts. In the experience to which the phrase mind itself refers, we are the space and we are the thoughts at the same time.
Some people are able to generate that level of attention naturally. Others have to work long and hard before they can rest and experience mind this way. Practice does not change mind itself but it can and does interrupt, disrupt, wear away or break down the operation of reactive patterns and open the possibility of recognizing mind itself. Practice also builds the capacity in the attention needed to stay in touch with mind itself once it has been recognized.
Ritual is one such method of practice. When we perform a ritual with attention, the imagery and symbolism in the ritual disrupt pattern-based projections. The steps of the ritual interrupt the formation of the world that patterns project. They break down how those projections manifest in our actions. Over time, patterns lose their momentum because the ritual prevents pattern-based reactions from building momentum. As the ritual repeatedly disrupts pattern-based experience, it opens up the possibility of clear non-conceptual knowing.
However, sometimes we take the purity associated with ritual as an end in itself. . .
To say “it is not” does not make it empty.
To maintain “it is” does not make it solid.
It is a realm beyond thought—untroubled,
nothing held, nothing dispelled—
A space free from the complications of thought and object.
We cannot make something into what it already is. As a Navajo proverb says, “You cannot wake up a person who is pretending to sleep.”
When we fall into a profound experience of groundlessness, we are inclined to say, “There is nothing there.” The phrase “there is nothing there” normally makes sense as a statement when we are pointing to an empty cupboard, say. When we are talking about our experience of mind or of life, the word “nothing” does not represent a fact. In that moment, our experience of life could hardly be fuller, more alive or awake. When we say of our experience of mind, “There is nothing there,” we do not use the same tone of voice as when we are making a statement about a cupboard. Our voice is probably softer and imbued with awe and wonder. The words are alive as we say them, and the experience we are describing comes alive in others.
In the same way, when the extraordinary clarity and vividness of this groundless knowing leaves us astonished and amazed, we might say, “It’s just there!” In doing so, we are not stating a fact: we are describing our experience. We are not making anything into anything, and if someone asked us, “What is there?” we would be hard put to answer.
The experience of awakening mind, groundless and vivid, is beyond words, beyond description, beyond conceptualization. In comparison, intellectual understanding is like quicksand—it sucks us in and the more we struggle to understand, the deeper we sink into conceptual thinking.
“To enter the unknown, you need a method, and then you use that method very precisely.” These words come from an art teacher in Europe. While she was talking about the creative process, what she says applies in this context, too. We need a method, a very precise method, that brings us right into what we are experiencing without confining, reducing or restricting it, in such a way that we neither hold on to nor try to dispel what arises.
That method comes down to what Suzuki Roshi said about Soto Zen practice: absolute confidence in our fundamental nature. . .
No origin, nothing there: that’s just how it is.
Perception doesn’t arise or vanish.
When you make it more than that,
It’s like making form out of what is formless:
You lose touch with what is natural. How reactive you become!
There is something wonderfully tenacious about the human proclivity to name an experience and then make an object out of the name. An academic word for this tendency is reification, but the proclivity has been known since ancient times. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching point out how this propensity is problematic in the context of spiritual practice:
A way that becomes the way is not the way.
A name that becomes the name is not the name.
When we are present, deeply present, in what we experience, it is turtles all the way down. Experience is groundless. When we look into that fathom-less depth, we often recoil with fear. We feel as if we are jumping off a cliff into a bottomless abyss. Yet, there is nothing to fear. Because there is no bottom, there is no end to our fall. It is turtles all the way down and we can fall forever. . .